in-bali,-the-pandemic-unravels-a-hard-won-campaign-to-save-benoa-bay

Banner image: Demonstrators in Bali hold a protest against land reclamation prior to the Bali gubernatorial election in 2017.

  • In late August, officials in Bali ratified a new zoning plan, which critics say was passed without sufficient public review or participation.
  • The new regulation allows for sand mining, expansion of Benoa Harbor, and development of Ngurah Rai International Airport.
  • Plans to develop Benoa Bay have prompted years of protests, and a previous proposal was shelved in October 2019.
  • The sea mining zone in the new plan is close to a proposed marine conservation nursery area for dolphins and whales.

A year ago, Bali’s environmentalist community was cautiously celebrating the cancellation of a massive land reclamation project planned for Benoa Bay. The permit for the 30 trillion rupiah ($2 billion) development plan to build 12 artificial islands — complete with a golf course, theme park, and even a Formula One race course — expired before the project could obtain government approval.

On Oct. 10, 2019, the Bali governor designated Benoa Bay a conservation area for religious and cultural activities and artisanal fisheries, protected from reclamation of any kind. For a brief moment after five years of relentless protests, it appeared that Benoa Bay would remain untouched.

Barely 11 months later, the Balinese legislature gathered discreetly during the COVID-19 pandemic and approved a zoning plan for the area that would permit sand mining and an expansion of the harbor and airport.

These plans passed through gaping loopholes in the 2019 declaration that established a maritime conservation area in Benoa Bay. The Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries (KKP) had designated 1,243 hectares (3,072 acres) as a maritime cultural protection area, but left the terms “revitalization” and “reclamation” equivalent to each other. Green groups like the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) and the Balinese People’s Forum to Reject Reclamation (ForBALI) have expressed lingering doubts about the efficacy of the decree, as it’s still trumped by a presidential regulation that allows revitalization (or reclamation) of 700 hectares (1,730 acres) in Benoa Bay.

The battle against land reclamation in Bali has been a tumultuous saga of protests that have featured punk rock bands, celebrities, football matches, and local communities against Dubai-esque development plans. For the last six years the “Tolak Reklamasi” (Reject Reclamation) movement has fought to keep developers out of Benoa Bay. Sacred purification sites, coral reefs, mangrove forests, and fisheries are at stake.


Demonstrators march on Sept. 12 in protest at the 2020-2040 coastal zoning plan passed by Bali’s provincial council the previous month.Demonstrators march on Sept. 12 in protest at the 2020-2040 coastal zoning plan passed by Bali’s provincial council the previous month.

Zoning impacts on marine mammals and fisheries

Bali’s provincial council, the DPRD, approved the island’s 2020-2040 coastal zoning plan this past August. The plan includes significant provisions for extractive development in the following forms:

  • Sand mining, covering 1,298 hectares (3,207 acres)
  • Expansion of Benoa Harbor, covering 1,378 hectares (3,405 acres)
  • Development of Ngurah Rai International Airport, covering 151 hectares (373 acres)

It also secures at least 10% of reclaimed land area for the government.

Environmental groups have raised the alarm about the potential environmental impacts of these plans.

A 2016 survey of marine mammal habitat by Conservation International (CI) Indonesia concluded that a site in southern Bali’s waters “is the perfect place for marine mammals,” according to CI Indonesia director Iwan Dewantama. “That’s why I proposed to make this a marine conservation area and strongly objected that the government designated a sand mining area just beyond there,” he said.

Sand mining operations disturb marine life and compromise the integrity of coral reefs, where most fish live. Studies show that underwater dredging can also cause underwater erosion, risking landslides that shift coral reefs — and the 25% of the ocean’s fish that they support — away from the shore. For fishers, that means traveling further, increasing the cost of production for their catch.

Many Balinese see a cautionary tale in a land reclamation project that quadrupled the size of nearby Serangan Island in the 1990s. The planned development project, and promised tourism boom, never materialized. But the local marine ecology was devastated, leaving residents embittered and empty-handed without the fisheries that previously sustained their livelihoods.


Conservation International proposed allocating a site in southern Bali as a nursery and mating ground for four species of whales. The site was found to be a rich feeding ground, supporting whales and their offspring due to upwelling.Conservation International proposed allocating a site in southern Bali as a nursery and mating ground for four species of whales. The site was found to be a rich feeding ground, supporting whales and their offspring due to upwelling.

Tourism, on the other hand, is a major revenue generator for Balinese fishers. According to Ketut Mangku Arta, a fisherman and leader of multiple fishers’ organizations in Bali, mixed livelihoods are the norm. “For now, it’s a balance between tourism and fishing. We bring others out for fishing or snorkeling. Our double incomes supplement each other,” Mangku Arta said. Fewer tourists this year means a greater need for fishing, although Dewantama identifies a paradox: “The data is very clear that artisanal fisheries in Bali have decreased.”

Despite the major potential impacts and the well-established opposition to similar projects, activists and conservationists say the new zoning plan was approved without sufficient opportunity for public input.


The traditional Balinese jukung is as widely used for fishing as it is for transporting tourists.The traditional Balinese jukung is as widely used for fishing as it is for transporting tourists.

Silenced representation

The Bali DPRD invited Walhi Bali’s director, I Made Juli Untung Pratama, to a hearing on Aug. 31 where the zoning plan was shared. When Untung Pratama tried to speak out, he was silenced by the council speaker, Adi Wiryatama. “The reason for his refusal was because only members of the Bali DPRD had the right to speak,” Untung Pratama told Mongabay. Without the chance to speak, Untung Pratama left the meeting and held his own press conference with Walhi to address what happened at the council. A demonstration soon followed.

“The lack of participatory processes in this regulation is concerning,” environmental law professor Agung Wardana told Mongabay. “It is a condition to deliberately open discussion with the public to receive opinions and feedback from the public, but they [DPRD] did it in silence. The zoning regulation was already ratified, and this secures the opportunity to do sand mining in southern Bali, which is an indication for reclamation.”

When asked for comment on the events of the meeting, council speaker Wiryatama provided a statement detailing the code of conduct specific to a plenary session. Those from outside the council do not have the right to speak and therefore “it can be stated that the DPRD Bali has not violated any provisions, considering that the 15th Plenary Session is the final stage of deliberation on draft regional regulations.”

The new zoning plan for Bali isn’t the only controversial measure Indonesian officials have swiftly passed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Facing a dire economic slump, the Ministry of Finance is accelerating economic development to compensate for losses from tourism. When asked about the role of the pandemic in the ratification, environmental law professor Agung Wardana agreed that COVID-19 had precipitated the plans. “The government is accelerating investment to stabilize the economy,” he said.

“Stagnant, controversial projects are being resumed in the name of economic development. When we look at trends, not only in Benoa Bay, we see mining laws have been enacted to accelerate production in coal and minerals. Safeguards have been relaxed to bring investment into the country. The controversial Omnibus Bill is the government’s effort to strengthen all sectors to support economic development at any expense.”

The bill, passed by parliament on Oct. 5, has been promoted by President Joko Widodo as a way to bring massive economic reforms aimed at simplifying regulations and stimulating investment after a 5.32% contraction in Indonesia’s economy in the second quarter.


The proposed conservation area, which is close to the area allocated for sand mining in the new zoning plan, was reported to contain all species of marine dolphins. “I saw a thousand dolphins around my boat when we did the research,” said CI’s Iwan DewantThe proposed conservation area, which is close to the area allocated for sand mining in the new zoning plan, was reported to contain all species of marine dolphins. “I saw a thousand dolphins around my boat when we did the research,” said CI’s Iwan Dewant

Sand mining can support conservation

The unrelenting flow of visitors prior to COVID-19 has wrought destruction on Bali’s beaches for years. According to Conservation International’s Dewantama, sand mining has been presented as the national government’s way of ensuring the protection of Bali’s beaches. “I can understand that perspective and for that reason we need conservation projects in eroded beach areas,” Dewantama said. “It’s not reclamation, and they’re using the sand for conservation. I proposed allocating sand mining in the west, not the south of Bali where I strongly encouraged processes to allocate a new conservation area.”

Wardana said he has heard the arguments in favor of development. “Biodiversity has been lost since the 1990s from reclaiming Serangan Island, so now it’s argued that there wouldn’t be a negative impact. It’s already degraded. Further reclamation cannot damage what’s already lost: That’s the argument of the company and the government.”

Property development firm Tirta Wahana Bali Internasional (TWBI) is behind the proposed 12-island development project called Nusa Benoa. TWBI did not respond to a request for an interview, but Nusa Benoa is described on its website as a “Revitalization” and “Eco Sustainable development” that “revolves around Balinese cultural, traditional values and the environmental enhancements of the bay.”

In the language of the zoning plan, the damaged bay is in need of revitalization and rehabilitation. According to TWBI, Nusa Benoa would answer that need.


Children clean the beach at Labuhan Amuk Bay as part of fisherman Mangku Latra’s environmental education program.Children clean the beach at Labuhan Amuk Bay as part of fisherman Mangku Latra’s environmental education program.

Bali in 2040

In Balinese cosmology, the beach and sea are strongly connected to the mountains and land. If one is damaged, the other is likewise affected. “Segara Gunung,” Dewantama said. “Ridge to reef is the Balinese philosophy marking sites in the sea and forest as sacred. I try to put the philosophy into tangible governance processes.”

“Just like the human body, if one part is injured and goes untreated, it will affect other parts of the body, that is why the Benoa Bay reclamation will damage the rest of Bali,” said artist Made Bayak, whose environment-themed performance pieces have been part of Bali’s anti-reclamation struggle.

The recent events raise the question of who will have a seat and a voice at the table to decide the Bali of 2040 when the zoning plan has run its course. With the pandemic still raging, international tourism to Bali has been ruled out until at least 2021. This presents an opportunity to a more sustainable development path for the future. Walhi campaign coordinator Edo Rakhman, who interviewed with Mongabay from Indonesia’s sinking capital, concluded: “The international community must support community resistance efforts that reject all forms of destruction of their livelihoods, including areas or spaces that are considered sacred. Even in the name of development or economic growth or anything else; if it takes away the rights of others, it is unjustifiable.”

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